Dr Bickleigh, an unassuming little chap with a distinct inferiority complex, lives in the exclusive hamlet of Wyvern’s Cross with his domineering wife Julia. Julia is one of the Devonshire Crewstantons; Bickleigh the son of a shopkeeper. She rules Bickleigh with a rod of iron.
As Malice Aforethought opens, Dr Bickleigh is at a tennis party, deciding to kill Julia.
But first we see him trying to seduce local girl Gwynyfryd Rattery in the potting shed. Bickleigh is passionately in love with Gwynyfryd and has prepared some hydrangea hortensia cuttings as a pretext for getting her alone. Bickleigh, it soon transpires, is a serial romantic. Pretty much the only woman he hasn’t been in love with is his wife Julia.
There were two peculiarities of his wife’s which irritated Dr Bickleigh particularly. Quite small things, and not irritating in themselves, but they just happened to get on his nerves. For they were symbolic, in a way, of the difference between them; a perpetual reminder even in his own home. She never used a short word where a long one would do, and her enunciation was distinct to the point of affectation.
When he falls for a new arrival in the village, the soulful young heiress Madeleine Cranmere, Julia’s fate is sealed.
Dr Bickleigh was delighted. For the first time in his life, apparently, he had come in to contact with someone whose mind was in complete sympathy with his own. Expanding, he ventured to hint as much, and his delight grew when his companion confessed that for her too it was a rare joy to be able to exchange intelligent conversation with another person. Most girls of her own age, in Miss Cranmere’s opinion, seemed to have developed no further from what they had been at twelve years old, while the young men were even worse. Didn’t Dr Bickleigh agree? Dr Bickleigh, thinking of Gwynyfyrd Rattery, opined that the girls were even worse that the young men.
A mundane begininng, but soon they are conducting ‘the love affair of the century at white heat‘, with ‘long and earnest discussions […] passionate embraces, ardent protestations, and tears.’
All adolescent enough, but very serious when coupled with Bickleigh’s growing murderous urges, He behaves more and more badly as the book progresses and he gives in to his baser instincts. Yet his journey is handled so incrementally that the reader takes quite a while to lose all sympathy for him. It all seems so reasonable.
Malice Aforethought is one of the CWA’s top 100 crime novels, and is credited as one of the most innovative books in the genre. From the first paragraph we know who the murderer is – pretty startling for 1931. The suspense comes from how we arrives at his decision, how he does it, and of course the aftermath.
It is a black comedy, written with incisive wit and a certain contempt for the residents of Wyvern’s Cross:
Voices shrill and ladylike slashed the atmosphere in vivid ribbons. Characters came up, were seen through, and retired conquered. Reputations littered the ground like snowflakes.
It comes to something when the philandering murderer is possibly the most sympathetic character in a book.
An excellent book, well worth adding to your collection.
Francis Iles was Anthony Berkeley Cox. As Iles he wrote Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact (which Hitchcock ruined in the last five minutes of his adaptation Suspicion). As Anthony Berkeley he wrote another CWA top 100, The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Martin Edwards’ recent The Golden Age of Murder looks quite closely at his life, and also Cox’s own relationship with women – things were Bickleigh-level complicated.
First published in the UK, 1931, by Victor Gollancz
This edition 1999, Pan Books
Final destination: A keeper
Petrona Remembered [Martin Edwards]: I don’t know if Maxine ever read MALICE AFORETHOUGHT but I suspect that if she did, she found Iles’ writing as entertaining as his protagonist’s behaviour is reprehensible. In its day, the story was regarded as ground-breaking, with its focus on a murderer’s psychology rather than the process of detection. More than eighty years later, Iles’s masterpiece still reads well, and that, I think Maxine would have agreed, is as good a test as any of the quality of a crime novel.